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SJ Reads: Batman: Noel

Published December 20, 2017 by admin

batman noel

 

Time once again for another alternative holiday title to get you in the spirit! This week, we look at Batman: Noel.

I stop and start with the Bat family comics, but they’re consistently the only DC I really keep up with (though not so much once New 52 hit). In general, I prefer titles like this or trade paperbacks of arcs to individual issues. I have my own thoughts on what Batman is and isn’t, but one thing I love is that within the title, there are so many different facets to the character and to Gotham, itself. It makes ideas like this not only work, but become something really interesting and special.

The basic gist is that this is A Christmas Carol put through a Batman filter. We see Bob, one of Joker’s henchmen, be used as a potential pawn by Batman, whose world view has become even more black and white after the death of Jason Todd. Different heroes and villains take on the role of the ghosts as Batman/Bruce slowly succumbs to pneumonia, while also trying to take down the joker and deal with what he’s becoming.

Because Batman can be so many things, it’s interesting to see him as Scrooge, and not all that unbelievable. It’s also interesting to see Batman as not benevolent hero or hardcore badass, but something in the middle, someone who will do a lot to support their view of the world that’s slowly been affected by grief. You also get to see how others view him, plus there’s the obligatory action and fight sequences and solving the problem of the moment. Yet it still keeps to theme, still feels like a Christmas title. I also like that you do get a character arc from Bruce, you do get the sense that he’s working through things and learning somewhat, but it’s also believable and not something cartoony to fit the source material.

For me, especially, it vaguely reminds me of the animated series episodes where you’d take a brief look at some poor guy stuck in the middle of Batman and Joker’s constant battle, or see the main action through a side set of eyes. I love choices like that, and they really work for this title.

The art is just gorgeous, too. There’s a haunting quality to it, a cold realism that transcends typical comic book looks for me. I rememer not going into this one with any real expectation, because so often for me gimmicks like this just don’t work. I have to admit, I was very pleasantly surprised and read it a few times in a row – and got a different take each time I paged through it.

 

SJ Reads: The Artist’s Way

Published November 27, 2017 by admin

This is another of those so obvious I probably shouldn’t include it, but it’s well-known for a reason.

artist's way

 

Confession: I haven’t made it all the way through this one. I’ve had to take it in spurts, and that seems to be the case for most people I know who own it. It’s definitely one you’ll probably want to buy (I recommend giving it a flip through at the library first to make sure it’s your speed), because it is involved and detailed. However, if you’re looking for something to jumpstart your artistic practice, this is definitely the book for it.

The thing is, this book is incredibly interactive. It gives you some initial basic practices and things to consider, and then you work through chapter by chapter. It’s kind of up to you how to interpret some of it, and while it’s geared to all types of artists, most of these exercises involve writing, so I feel it really rings true for writers in a special way. This book has really helped me look at my relationship through people where my artistic practices are involved, as well as my views on myself and my own practice, in general.

One of the biggest takeaways that seems to be universal is the morning pages. Whether you use it for journaling, brain dumping, writing whatever comes to mind – the thought process is to wake up and get three pages down to clear your head and get your thoughts together.

Admittedly, not being a morning person, this is not the easiest thing for me. I’ve played with it here and there, and I will say that I’m usually better off when I do it. It also helped me put a lot in perspective during a time when my thoughts about my writing were fairly tangled. For that takeaway, alone, I’m grateful to this title.

It’s one that deserves to be read the whole way through, but you can also skim or focus on the chapters that you think will serve you. As with anything else like this, of course there are corresponding workbooks and such, but really, the main title is all you need.

Get it here!

 

 

SJ Reads: Writing Down the Bones

Published November 13, 2017 by admin

This was actually one of the first writing books that was recommended to me, and one that was given to me, as well. I’ve read it a few times, though it’s been a while. Probably time to read it again.

writing down the bones

This probably works for me because it’s lined up inadvertantly with some of my own explorations into Zen, and I like the admission that both are a constant practice. The author does a wonderful job of painting specific examples to illustrate her points, often from her own life and experience. There are some great writing prompts in here, as well. Over all, she gives the reader (and writer) a lot to think about. I find myself still thinking on bits and pieces of this book when I haven’t read it, and it’s forced me to be more conscious of my own journey and daily experience.

It’s a decidedly postive, encouraging book, as well, so even if some of the information is things that you could find in a lot of writing books, it feels incredibly supportive coming from these pages. You don’t feel like it’s some high and mighty mega-bestseller writing this to fulfill a quota or to humble brag or whatever. Natalie Goldberg clearly cares about the craft and wants to share her enthusiasm for it. That alone is enough to put this book on my shelf over some others. This was the book that got me writing daily once upon a time, that got me willing to just put words down without knowing what they were necessarily for. It’s done me a lot of good over and over again, so I definitely think it’s one worth exploring.

Definitely check it out!

 

 

 

SJ Reads: Hester

Published October 30, 2017 by admin

Time to round out the month with another nostalgic Halloween read! This week’s pick will be one of my favorites from when I was a kidlet, and likely one that only people who date back to bronze age (like me) will remember. I give you: Hester.

 

Hester

 

Hester is an alligator who’s getting ready for her Halloween party, but has time to spare. She goes out trick-or-treating, but ends up at a house that is owned by a very nice older lady and her friends. Since this book isn’t easy to find and has been out forever, spoilers ahead:

Hester totally trick or treats at a haunted house, but it’s full of nice monsters who are happy to have a visitor (and if memory serves, they let her in because she’s dressed as a witch, herself). There’s also a vignette where she helps the older lady (a witch) with some broom issues.

This is a super-cute book with some really vibrant and vivid illustrations. I remember checking out this particular title all year round as a kid, because I had a thing for exploring haunted houses (and this book is probably responsible for me thinking that any inhabitants of such houses would be a friendly delight, setting up my childhood mind to get wrecked by adverts for horror movies later on). The illustrations really give you room to explore – there’s some good detail which led to a great deal of imagining on my part as a kid.

I like this story because it’s somewhat gentle, with Hester soothing and helping out the haunted house inhabitants. They’re never really referred to as anything other than a nice old lady/nice people, so the book relies fully on the illustrations to convey the “joke.” Still, if you also look at it from the standpoint that they could very well be nice people except for the prejudices that are put on them (thanks horror genre), it’s interesting from that angle, as well.

Over all, a cute, fun, Halloween read that will give kids a lot to explore and give adults a chuckle. Unfortunately, it’s out of print, and while it’s a little easier to find than last week’s title, you’re going to end up paying for it.  I would definitely recommend checking out your local library system for it, because it is definitely worth a flip through.

 

 

SJ Reads Bonus: Tomie by Junji Ito

Published October 26, 2017 by admin

For whatever reason, I haven’t really been getting into too much that falls into the realm of horror this year, until very recently. A friend and I got talking about manga and I mentioned that I admittedly fall more into the shojo-type reader (for better or worse), and because he knew I really like horror and wanted to diversify, he recommended the work of Junji Ito. At the moment, Tomie was the first book by Ito I was able to get my hands on, so I brought it home with little expectations, figuring it might kill an evening during a stressful week.

Holy. Balls.

This book…this book…

Tomie

This book had a slightly slow start for me, but once it got going, it really sucked me in. We begin at Tomie’s funeral, where we learn she’s been hacked to pieces by a psychopath, leaving behind her grieving friend and boyfriend. And the teacher she had an affair with. And other classmates who weren’t too fond of her. And by the way, it was her class that killed her after an accident. And then she comes back to class the day after her funeral like nothing has happened.

And that’s just the first story.

The really interesting thing about Tomie, is not just that she’s beautiful, but that she isn’t what I’d call a typical horror monster. I think she’s referred to as a succubus, but I don’t think that’s a really accurate term for whatever this thing is – if there is an actual term for it. There’s also a really clever, repeated use of her name throughout, so you don’t have to name her as a creature or thing – she’s Tomie. She’s not necessarily out to suck the life from someone or anything else…if anything, she craves other people’s attention. And the more they give to her, the more she wants, until she drives them so mad that they commit murder..which usually ends up being her.

You would not think you could fill a book with stories about this, but Ito does it. And they’re unsettling, uncomfortable, and diverse. You have two hikers who find her frozen while they’re looking for the one hiker’s missing brother. You have the two girls who find the strands of Tomie’s hair that one girl’s father has kept and end up infecting their whole class with bits of Tomie. You have medical experiments, a young boy torn between Tomie and his mother, a girl who is manipulated various times by her, a strange salesman selling bits of Tomie to create a mass amount of her to infect the world, a warped plan of vengeance….it just goes on and on.

Really, that’s where it’s effective as a volume. It wears you out. It just keeps going, and you can’t stop reading. You want someone to come out on top against her and just when you think it happens…the other shoe drops.

The art is magnificent for horror manga – Ito really pulls out all the stops. I will say, having become used to shojo style art, it was a little bit of a switch for me, but very quickly the art becomes more detailed and expressive once you’re let loose on the roller coaster. This stuff is over-the-top, dramatic, gory, and monstrous. The different forms Tomie takes, the way she regrows, or reforms herself, plus the variety of her deaths as people desperately fight back…it’s a lot to take in. The sheer amount of different ways Tomie regenerates and clones herself, the different expressions of people as they lose their minds, the different ways they try to rid themselves of Tomie through terror and love…it’s intense.

And really, for me, that’s where the horror came in. Story-wise, all the ways that love is shown to grow manic, obsessive, and toxic is deeply unsettling. The people that you want to cheer for turn horrible, or you just know in the pit of your stomach that they’re going to be victims and be touched forever once Tomie shows up, because once she does there’s no escaping her. There’s no underdog awkward girl coming out on top, no one getting the last laugh. As horrifying as the illustrations are, they were almost cathartic after the tension of watching Tomie manipulate people. She’s intensely cruel and apathetic in turn, her manipulations are really uncomfortable. You’re put in the horrible position as reader as not wanting to cheer for her death, but not quite blaming the other characters when they snap, either.

I think, in horror, it’s common to try to game the story, to have in the back of your mind what you would do, how you would ‘win.’ I just don’t think there’d be any way to win with this creature and the intense, obsessive emotions she provokes just by being around people. And that is absolutely terrifying, especially considering her desire to mutiply and go out into the world – the thought that these stories may not even cover all the multiple Tomies that were made in one of the stories just makes the whole concept even better (and thinking long-term on it so much worse).

What also bothered me with this is that, essentially, the monster is a young woman whose purpose is to get killed repeatedly, so does that propel misogyny and the whole succubus/evil woman stereotype in horror? Usually I’d give an immediate yes, but with this,  I’m honestly not sure. I feel like I should have something to say on that, and yet the story really says as much or more about how other people take to Tomie, about their own inherrent monstrous qualities that are lurking below the surface, as much as whatever she’s supposed to be. Really, no one is innocent in this book, no matter how much they claim to be. Tomie may affect people, but you also get the sense that that desperation is already there, and is drawn out rather than implanted. In some ways, she does have agency – it’s just incredibly twisted.

Still, it does worry me that so much of the theme of this is violence against a woman, even if she obviously is not human and is very much drawing out the reactions of others in a calculated way (you could argue that inciting her own death makes Tomie potentially grow and multiply faster, and as long as she’s not being ignored, she’s somewhat satisfied..if she’s ever satisfied). My own reactions to the book have given me a lot to think about, and I’d be curious to know if there’s supposed to be any further symbolism or anything there, or what the thought process was. This is a book that definitely makes you consider who you are and how you’re reacting to the material, so while I found myself entranced by the story, I was also highly unnerved that I was so taken by it, too. And you get the feeling that that’s the way the character would want it, which also mildly freaks me out.

This book gets under your skin quickly and stays there – it’s definitely haunted me long after reading. A fast read, it also probably isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not one of the most unsettling horror books I’ve read, but I think the visuals help propel it to the unnerving category much quicker than a straight novel. I definitely recommend this one, but be warned – Tomie comes back, and she likes to stick with you.

SJ Reads: Hob Goblin and the Skeleton

Published October 23, 2017 by admin

Apologies for last week – apparently it’s that time of year that my sinuses decide to rule over every other part of my life. So, that was fun.

On to the books!

This week’s nostalgic Halloween title is one that I’m pretty sure my mother randomly grabbed at the library when I was a kid. It was one that I was deeply attached to growing up, but then couldn’t remember the title for the life of me – it took a lot of enquiries, mass googling, and finally people with better recall than me to find this thing again. I reread it for the first time in decades last year and fell in love all over again. Today we look at Hob Goblin and the Skeleton by Alice Schertle

Hob Goblin lives with his friend Bones Jones the skeleton – who insists that he was the King of England and therefore shouldn’t have to help clean or do chores or any of that nonsense (ed. – I feel ya, Jonesy. Unfortunately the ‘my skeleton is nobility’ excuse has never worked for me, either). After a fight, Bones Jones leaves and Hob Goblin decides to kidnap a human slave to do his work for him.

Okay, obviously there might be some people who would rather that aspect not be in a children’s book, and admittedly I kind of blinked because I didn’t remember that bit at all as a kid. However, I mean, it seems in character for a goblin, so there’s that.

Thus begins the adventure of Hob trying to find someone to kidnap…except it’s Halloween and everyone mistakes him for a trick or treater, right down to his big sack he intended to stuff his victim in. Things come to a head when Hob is mistakenly entered into a costume contest, and he eventually meets back up with Bones, and they share his Halloween candy, though they’re not quite sure what it is (and give it all sorts of slightly gross, fun names).

That last scene is what I really remembered, but suffice it to say, the whole book really held up well to my memory. The story moves along nicely, and there’s a lot of detail, from Bones using furniture polish to polish himself to the branch Hob uses to fly with his frog to the human world.

The art is also exquisite – down to the borders on each page. There’s so much movement and expression in the illustrations, I could just sit and stare at them for a good long time – and have memories of doing just that as a kid.

While it’s a little harsher than some kids’ Halloween fair, really it’s a perfect blend of spooky and funny with a decent lesson. As an adult I enjoyed it on story alone, and the illustrations just really took me to a place where I wondered (once again) what it would be like to live in that world.

The downside is this is not an easy book to find anymore. Seriously – the lack of cover is only because I’m not even finding a legit image of it.  There’s one listing on Amazon, but given the cover shown doesn’t match the book, I’m a little skeptical of the listing. I want to say this title is circa late 70s early 80s, and it’s definitely one keeping an eye out for (if one thing my search has found, it’s that so many fondly remembered- and good- titles from my childhood are now out of print). My local library does have it, however, so definitely check yours.

SJ Reads: Harriet’s Halloween Candy

Published October 9, 2017 by admin

Alright, time to cutesie this thing back up.

You can’t have Halloween without candy, and if we’re being honest, then that’s just buckets and buckets of candy. So much candy. As a kid, I’d dream of getting enough Hallowen candy to swim in it like Scrooge McDuck in his money. I had some good hauls back in the day, and I’m ancient enough to remember when more than the ocassional person gave out full size candy bars and really special neighbors who we knew wouldn’t murder us would give us cookies and candy apples and stuff like that. My mom always had juice bottles for little kids, and through the years we made it a point to have non-food options decades before teal pumpkins were a thing.

And every year, I had to check out and read this book.

harriet

 

I don’t know if I identified with the being the older sibling aspect (which I’m not sure, because I didn’t start out life as the elder sibling – that didn’t happen til somewhat late in the game, considering). I don’t know if the detailed art just really appealed to me (I definitely loved looking at all the little details as a kid and identifying the types of candy).  Maybe it was because, for a kid’s book, Harriet struck me as a character who actually acted like the way I felt half the time.

The story is that Harriet goes trick or treating, but her baby brother is too young, so she has to share her candy. And of course she’s not going to because she worked hard for that, yo! After hiding it different places and getting worried, she decides that the only way to make sure she gets all her candy is to eat it all Right. Now.

You know where this is going.

The moment where she starts to feel sick and pivots towards sharing more is priceless – kids can see it coming from a mile away and giggle about it. The art is fun and friendly and accessible. I loved all of Nancy Carlson’s books growing up, but Harriet was my favorite character.

I got to hear her talk about her books as a teen (and she was kind and lovely.  However, by the time she got to our library for a signing she was freakin’ out of this book and I am STILL upset about that. I mean sure, I love Harriet and the Roller Coaster as much as anybody, but THIS WAS MY FAVORITE HARRIET BOOK AND A HALLOWEEN NECESSITY AND INNER CHILD SJ IS STILL SAD SHE DOESN’T HAVE A SIGNED COPY.

So obviously I learned the ‘sharing/letting other people have things you like is good’ lesson really well.

I actually checked this out last year, and like a lot of books from my childhood, I’m surprised by how short it is. I don’t know why I thought it was longer, but it seemed like this whole big thing when I read it as a kidlet. I tend to think part of it were the illustrations – I was much more prone to sprawling on the floor and immersing myself in picture books as a kid than I am now that I am…uh, not. And I think the funny moments just tickled me so much I probably just kept reading them.

So if you want a cute trick or treat down memory lane or want to see if your children learn to share better than I apparently did, definitely check out this book.